An interest group comprises individuals who join together to work towards, or to strongly support, a specific cause. Interest groups are often referred to as lobbies or lobbying groups, special interest groups, advocacy groups or pressure groups. By joining forces, the group attempts to influence or change public policy. This may pertain to an area regarding legislation, or a social aspect of society, or a particular industry.
An interest group may be organized in a highly structured fashion, or members may be more loosely tied together. Members of the interest group are not necessarily trying to get elected to office. Rather, their purpose is to influence policy or effect change.
Interest groups have a significant impact on the making of public policy. In some areas, researchers have focused much attention on interest groups and their role in policy making; in other cases, few details are known about what interest groups exist and how significant their influence might be. Generally, there is a wide range in terms of group size and goals. There are groups that wish to deal with an immediate concern, while others are determined to maintain a longer involvement with a particular issue.
Since their emergence in the United States and Great Britain, lobbies have developed a variety of methods to foster their interests. The media is one of the most effective tools. Strategies have developed in parallel with the revolutionary technological advances of the Internet and mobile networks. Websites, online marketing, emails, blogs and social networks like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter all contribute to lobbyists' efforts to promote their cause. YouTube, a video tool used to share messages worldwide, is a popular and effective, and readily available, online application.
With the simplicity of tapping a text message on a cellular phone, to mobile devices enabling instant access to the Internet and the World Wide Web at any given moment and at any location, an interest group can easily and rapidly broaden its network. Other methods used by many lobbyists include publicity stunts, polls and the publication of research findings. In many cases, commercial businesses provide financial support to an interest group with which they share a political interest or view.
Certain advocacy groups have become so successful that they have been transformed into social movements, or a social or political institution. In the U.K., the Tories initially formed in 1678 to advocate against the British Exclusion Bill. Ultimately, they became one of the first political parties, now called the Conservative Party. In the United States, there are a large number of interest groups. Some of the most prominent include the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Democratic Action and the National Organization for Women.
The Natural Right to Life Committee, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are examples of specialized advocacy groups. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has been described in the media as the second most powerful interest group in Washington. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) with 33 million members, is rated as the most powerful. This group determines senior citizens' eligibility for a range of discounts, including medicines, transport, travel and entertainment.
Groups may form with a view toward accruing a particular benefit, as in the case of certain consumer or trade organizations. Or activists may create a group to fight for something they believe to be correct or beneficial. Some critics claim that groups have used coercion unnecessarily in certain instances, compelling the government to spend scarce tax revenues on certain projects for which the interest group itself could raise funds.
Interest groups or lobbying groups have grown in their professionalism, although some are still primarily amateur organizations. One largely volunteer group, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the U.K., has been advocating for unilateral disarmament since 1957. Their logo has now become a symbol of peace across the world.